What on earth separates the merely polished and competent from the visionary? Why is it that a band as technically skilled as the Young sound so completely unremarkable when compared to the forebears they’re so obviously aping? Chrome Cactus, the band’s sophomore album, has all of the distorted, fuzzy appeal and even some of the eccentric, rocking guitar solos of a Dinosaur Jr. album, all of the gritty roll that characterizes so much of ’90s grunge, hell, even shades of the granite-heavy drone metal that’s the purview of bands like latter-day Earth or collaborations like The Desert Sessions and an impossible polish and yet not a drop of honest-to-god character.
Please, don’t make the mistaken assumption that this album is bad or that there’s some easy explanation for this emptiness. Others elsewhere have made bones about Hans Zimmerman’s vocals, even cast them as the sole villain in this enterprise, but his low-down rasp and the gobbledygook lyrics are actually perfect supplements to the magnitude of the bass and drums and more than welcome passengers on the light-waves of these sunny guitars. (An odd aside: in Matador’s press-release, they mention that the band’s sound was inspired by Lungfish. But one of the defining features of Lungfish are Daniel Higgs’ grand, prophetic doomsday cries and meditative hums, a complete contrast to Zimmerman’s venomously mumbled whispers. Nor is this so-called inspiration evident in the band’s conservative style). The instrumentation never misses the mark, shifts very comfortable from the measured walk of “Mercy” to the virtuoso guitar shenanigans at the end of “Cry of Tin”.
There’s an attitude and a swagger in the music that’s welcome, something like the aural equivalent of a gunslinger strolling into a saloon, and a heavy push courtesy of bassist Lucas Wedow’s serious chops that suggests the rock in rock and roll has not been entirely forgotten, but it’s all still lacking something vital. At the end of the day, the tracks blend into one another not because they necessarily sound the same but because there’s so little there in each song that’s new and challenging that it’s often hard to concentrate on them. It’s as if the brain has heard these exact arrangements or a variation thereof so many times that it filters the information out because there would be no point in retaining it; it’s the definition of redundant.
It’s a shame, but in some ways, this kind of mediocre release is worse than a truly bad one. To observe wasted talent, to see potential squandered on banal imitation, is to be disappointed. It’s a feeling worlds apart from the distance and superiority and even comfort that can so easily be found in watching a gaggle of hacks trip all over each other as they try to make something, anything at all. It’s doubly sad to find that this album is so close in terms of sound to their debut, Dub Egg, because it does not hint at any coming change for the Young. The Young still haven’t learned that there is a difference between having your inspirations and being artistically inspired in the sense of having a passionate, driving idea that needs to be communicated at the expense of everything else. Sometimes you have to smash your idols before you build yourself into one.